Return of the Sheiks: What next for Somalia and the United Arab Emirates?

By Loza Seleshie
Posted on Friday, 24 June 2022 02:47

Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud speaks during a Reuters interview in Mogadishu
Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud speaks during a Reuters interview inside his office at the Presidential palace in Mogadishu, Somalia 28 May 2022. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

Somalia's President Hassan Sheik Mohamud return to office after five years out of power has shaken up Somali politics and geopolitics of the Horn. But, Hassan is not the only one making a return to Mogadishu. After withdrawing aid and military cooperation in 2018, the United Arab Emirates’s (UAE) Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ) – backed by Saudi Arabia – has slowly been mending ties with Mogadishu. What will this mean for Somalia? And what are the implications for the Horn?

The last time Hassan Sheik Mohamud was president (2012-2017), the wider Horn and global dynamics were quite different. Covid was unheard of, the repercussions of the Arab Spring were still being felt and the world was just beginning to deal with then US president Donald Trump. Now, leaders have to deal with Russia’s war in Ukraine, a civil war in Ethiopia and growing concerns about global economic growth.

The reform agenda

Emerging from a tough race, Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh has a long list of economic, institutional, security and diplomatic reforms he wants to introduce.

Despite making progress on the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries debt-relief programme, the previous government of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed ‘Farmaajo’ faced a “triple shock” : Covid, extreme flooding and a locust invasion. Though the African Development Bank projects 3% GDP growth for 2022, the Ukraine-Russia conflict and drought in the Horn (nearly 200,000 people at risk of starvation) are driving oil and food prices up. Inflation is thus expected to reach 9.4% this year, up from 4.6% in 2021, while monetary policy and currency reforms are also on the agenda.

The former government had promised that the last elections would be a “one man, one vote” process. However, it did not follow through and preserved the current indirect election system. It involves an intricate, complex and corrupt selection process “perpetuat[ing] existing structures of exclusion. Therefore, overcoming this provisional regulation is one of the most important goals for the near future” writes René Brosius of the International Graduate School of African Studies.

President Hassan Sheikh is also seen as “a strong federalist […] less keen on regional [Horn] ties than his predecessor”, former minister Abdi Aynte told Crisis Group in June.

Hassan Sheikh’s track record and alliances

But how effective will the new administration in Mogadishu be? Hassan’s previous term was hurt by allegations of “chronic corruption […] and his innate inability to control his close inner circle of men”, writes Mohamed Haji Ingiriis, a visiting professor at King’s College.

In the face of Somalia’s divisions, President Hassan Sheikh supports Islamism – using Islam as an organising political principle. He supports Damul Jadid (“New Blood”), a sub-group of Al Islaah, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Somali branch. “Since […] 2008, Damul Jadiid has refrained from the use of violence and has instead taken an active role in Somali politics. […] Its approach on the country’s foreign policy [is] reportedly straying from the African Union and focusing more on issues pertaining to the Middle East,” according to the Counter Extremism Project.

Ingiriis argues that “the only regional or global ideology at work in Somalia at the moment is Islamism.”

The UAE is pushing a vision of “moderate Islam” and may have found an ally in Hassan Sheikh in this regard. “The Saudis and the Emiratis feared that, had the Ankara–Cairo–Doha axis remained intact, it would have probably emboldened the rest of the region’s Islamists, including their own, to demand reforms, elections, etc.” wrote Fajri Sufian for France 24.

Regional rivalries

Indeed, rivalries in the Gulf have spilled over to Somali politics.

“Over the past decade, three Middle East states, in particular, have operated at the sub-level of more powerful Western actors (foremost the United States) but have arguably become kingmakers of Somalia’s presidents: Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates,” according to academics Brendon J. Cannon and Federico Donelli. Though initially sponsored by Qatar in his first 2012 bid, Hassan Sheikh was dropped in favour of Farmaajo in the 2017 presidential race.

Hassan Sheikh was however supported by Turkey and later on, the UAE “hop[ing] to prise the winning candidate away from Turkey”. His defeat by Farmaajo led to diminished UAE influence in the region. But now that he’s back, perhaps all is not lost.

UAE : from foe to friend?

Farmaajo’s tenure from 2017 to May 2022 was a diplomatic roller coaster. The previously mentioned rift amongst Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman) played out in Somalia. Despite claiming neutrality, Somalia was accused by Abu Dhabi of supporting Qatar.

Thus began deeper relationships with Somalia’s autonomy-seeking states, destabilising the central government. This includes a 2016 contract between Emirati company DP World and Somaliland to build a port  as well as commercial hub that was inaugurated last year). In 2017 P&O Ports, a DP World subsidiary, signed a deal with Puntland – which is also seeking autonomy – for $336m and a 30-year concession – which was canceled in March 2022 as “the company failed to articulate the commitments it promised”.

The UAE’s special relationship with Somaliland and Puntland also extended to other areas. In 2018, Puntland requested the UAE continue its military operations, contradicting the central government in Mogadishu. Similarly, the arrival of a special envoy to Somaliland in 2021 increased tensions with the then-president Mohamed Abdulahi’s government.

Over the years, the UAE’s stance has wavered. Abu Dhabi refused to back Puntland leader Saeed Abdullahi Deni in the last presidential race. And in 2019, it abandoned plans to open a military base in Somaliland.

Porous borders and proxy strategies

Instability in the region allows “illicit cross-border weapons flows […] to flourish, particularly from Yemen [where the UAE and Saudis are fighting Houthi rebels] and transiting through Puntland, though the importance of networks based out of Djibouti is also regularly mentioned” according to a Hiraal Institute report.

Additionally, “a considerable volume of material comes via corrupt Somali state sources”, the report says, with an increased risk of UAE and other Gulf States’ weapons finding their way into the hands of the Islamist rebels of Al-Shabaab. The terrorist organisation is spending an estimated $24m a year on weapons according to Hiraal.

Source: Hiraal Institute

Diplomatic shifts

The change in government in the United States has also impacted regional geopolitics. Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s global standings have taken a hit due to the war in Yemen, and Qatar’s star seems to be rising in Washington. In January 2022, the Gulf State was nominated to become a ‘Major Non-NATO Ally’, further deepening cooperation. Washington says it “recognises Qatar’s growing responsibility as a strong and enduring US partner in countering violent extremism, combating terrorism and deterring external aggressors”, writes R. Clarke Cooper, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

The normalisation of relations between rival GCC States resulting in the Al-Ula Statement in January 2021 may also signal a new era. “The post-Al-Ula period is associated with a shift from fierce international rivalry […] to an era of peace- and investment-oriented foreign policy-making,” writes Hazal Musulu El Berni.

Despite encouraged economic cooperation, strains persist. The UAE’s recognition of Israel stemming from the US’ intention to secure peace in the region have not been supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Somalia. Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s once-tight relationship has now become one of ‘rival allies’. Both economies are transitioning and competing for the top spot in the region, and as the UAE’s resolve to stay in Yemen wanes, cracks could show.

Profits and interests

Turkey, which has a military base in Somalia, is seeking to build up its list of allies. It shares gas interests in the eastern Mediterranean with Israel, and it is also normalising relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Saudi Arabia is also ramping up its regional cooperation efforts. founding the Red Sea Council in 2020 comprising Egypt, Jordan, Eritrea, Yemen, Sudan, Djibouti, and Somalia. “Welcomed by many, including the EU, as a framework to address regional stability […] others worried it would be used as a proxy for Saudi Arabia to counter its regional rivals and criticised its narrow focus on security issues and its exclusion of key countries in the region” writes Desirée Custers, a Middle East and North Africa research associate at the Stimson Center. 

Consequences in the Horn

What effects will all of this have on Somalia’s ties to its African neighbours? The Eritrea-Ethiopia-Somalia Tripartite Agreement seeking closer ties in 2018 is one of the affected alliances. Crisis Group’s Omar Mahmood, Somalia expert described it as “bipartite at best”. It is also unclear how Kenya will deal with the new government in Mogadishu given disputes with the previous government over borders and natural resources and troops being redeployed.

The involvement of so many regional actors and the US’ plans to redeploy around 500 troops to counter Chinese influence and Al-Shabbab further complicate regional dynamics.

Though the the African Union Mission in Somalia has helped the Somali government contain Al-Shabaab – retaking 80% of its held territory – it is also facing “a resurgence of Al-Shabaab activities, a weak national security sector, dysfunctional politics and a protracted electoral crisis,” writes Hassan Khannenje, an adjunct professor at Wayne State University.

President Hassan Sheikh has only just started his term. If national, regional and global politics remain on-trend, strategic calculations and alliances will continue to shift in the years ahead.

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